Change the Way You Talk About Change

Change the Way You Talk About Change

We’ve all heard, if not done it ourselves; we give our audiences a few ideas and stories about thinking, being, acting, and saying things better. In the heat of the speech, it all sounds so rational and inspirational. We are suggesting to audiences that if they change a few things, things will change for them – for the better. I am going to challenge you with a nuance from neuroscience and suggest that change is most likely not going to happen if we don’t change something, and that we are setting up our audiences for failure, for the most part. Before you start screaming “heresy!” bear with me. I think you’ll be able to make your points stickier, more accurate and very useful.

People Most Likely Won’t Change

First, let’s consider why people don’t readily change in the first place. In essence, when we give a speech or workshop, we’re suggesting – and sometimes by extension, their bosses are suggesting – that audience members are most likely lacking in a perspective, attitude or skill. I contend that our talk is just a fancy way of giving group feedback on how things currently are; and we’re there to suggest ways they can be better. That’s feedback.  So, consider how you feel when a well-intended audience member comes up to you after your talk and says, “May I give you some feedback?” Those supposedly help-intentioned six words seem to be translated in the brain to, “May I destroy you?” At least to me they are, and judging from the reaction from thousands of people I introduce that concept to each year, the same is true for them. Feedback feels threatening to the brain because it suggests we are not as smart, good or high in status as the one giving feedback. It’s literally considered a threat in the brain (Michael G. Marmot 2004; David Rock 2009) and often doesn’t work as intended, as we’ve actually known for a long time now (Ammons, 1956; Coens & Jenkins, 2002; Kluger & DeNisi, 2006; Sillup & Klimberg 2010). The research shows us that once-a-year feedback leads to 30% of the recipients positively changing, 30% of the time nothing changes and a whopping 40% of the time the recipient performs worse. I’m not certain that our “feedback to audiences” in the form of a speech has the same effect, but even if it’s close, the result is dismal. The reason being cited for this dreary feedback outcome is because the defensive brain cannot change. It’s awash in stressor chemicals that cause the brain to go into survival mode, which is about using old behaviors we’ve always used, regardless of their ineffectiveness.

So, what does work?

Feedback, and similarly guidance from us as speakers, does work. But, because feedback is delivered infrequently by a boss or a speaker, it sets up defensive alarms and internal talk that says, “You don’t know me. You have no idea that your idealistic suggestions won’t work in my world!” In order for feedback and our suggestions to work well, I suggest they are:

  1. Timely
  2. Frequent
  3. Objective
  4. Specific

If a boss waits an entire six months or year to give an employee performance feedback, it’s doomed for failure. Likewise, if your audiences experience your kind of enlightenment once a year or so, I believe we’re doomed for the same trash bin. Consider the formula above and reflect on the outcome of these two pieces of feedback:

Boss in an annual performance evaluation: “Joe, you don’t speak up enough in meetings.”

Joe’s possible reaction (whether internal or external): “You don’t know that. You can’t possibly be at every meeting I attend. I speak up all the time!”

The ensuing result is likely no change. Now, consider the feedback using the formula.

Boss after a meeting in which both he and Joe were present:  “Joe, I noticed in this last meeting, and have noticed it before, that you listen really well when you’re with a group. I know we will all benefit from your thoughts if in every meeting from now on, you give at least one opinion or thought before the end of the meeting.”

Joe’s possible reaction: “Easy enough. I’ll give it a shot.”

Here’s the point. When we suggest to our audiences that we know precisely what they are going through,  but our suggestions for coping, changing, or learning a new skill are not timely, objective and VERY specific, I believe they fall flat after we’ve gone; and that we’ve just proven we DON’T know precisely what they’re going through. To help us with that, we can inject the timely, objective and specific part of the formula in the talk. To cover the frequency “requirement,” consider sprinkling the audience’s upcoming year with articles, videos and more that are timely, objective and specific to THEIR needs.

It’s nice to think that our audiences will scale the highest peaks because we climbed one. We KNOW they could do it and we attempt to inspire them to do so. I suggest you try, in your next talk, to do enough upfront audience research that allows you to speak to what is REALLY timely to the audience; and that you give them a suggested improvement born out of something that you’ve witnessed as an outside observer in their, and other’s, work world (objective); and then give them something VERY specific to do about it. The next time you come, they may have moved the mountain you suggested needed moving.

That’s just my feedback. Good luck to the 30% who use it.

Scott Halford

Scott Halford

Scott Halford, CSP, is president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC ,a past president of NSA-Colorado, and is currently on the NSA Board of Directors.
Scott Halford
Scott Halford
Scott Halford
Scott Halford

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